The parades are postponed; the picnic baskets go unpacked; and the evening’s fireworks displays are likely to be busts, not booms. For many of us, America’s annual Fourth of July blowout will be reduced to a gentle breeze in the wake of COVID-19.
Yet even in the face of the pandemic and its attendant restrictions, the patriotic impulse remains strong, reflecting the long history of this beloved American holiday, which originated in 1776 with the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Written primarily by Thomas Jefferson and adopted at the time by nine of the 13 colonies, the declaration sundered our ties with Great Britain and established the United States as a free and independent nation.
In the 244 years since that auspicious day, the Fourth of July has remained an important part of the national psyche, celebrated almost from the beginning with concerts, parades, bonfires, and fireworks. The War of 1812, in which the U.S. again fought Great Britain, added urgency to the annual show of patriotic fervor. And in 1870, in the aftermath of the Civil War, Congress declared July 4 a federal holiday.
Independence Day also survived the lethal (and in some ways similar) Spanish flu pandemic that ravaged this country in 1918 and 1919. In the U.S. alone, about 22 million people contracted the illness, with a death toll of around 675,000. Coincidentally, one of the epicenters of illness was Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence had been signed 142 years earlier. Cases of the flu erupted after the city declined to cancel a patriotic parade that brought together more than 200,000 Philadelphians; within three days, the city marked 635 new cases.
In 1941 – the last Independence Day before Pearl Harbor – President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed the nation from Hyde Park with the reminder that “when we repeat the great Pledge to our country and our flag … we pledge as well our word, our will, and – if it be necessary – our very lives,” to the cause of freedom.
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has raised important questions about the meaning of that freedom, as Americans have faced orders to stay at home, refrain from going to their jobs or school, and to practice social distancing. Most of us seem to agree that, while disruptive, those measures were necessary. Now, many of those restrictions have been lifted. Yet the Fourth of July, with its focus on independence, forms a potent backdrop to our reflections on liberty and responsibility in the face of a worldwide health crisis. How do we celebrate our freedoms? What allegiance do we owe to our fellow Americans? Can patriotism include temporarily subrogating our individual rights to benefit the whole?
The equilibrium between individual liberties and the social contract is always precarious. This year, as we celebrate the Fourth of July – with a socially distant picnic, perhaps, or a stroll through a leafy neighborhood, or even just flying Old Glory – let’s take a moment to consider how best to maintain that balance.